Clinton New Jersey


Working at Bell Labs
By John Vollaro                      February 2007

    The decision to settle in New Jersey after leaving the Navy was prompted by my acceptance of an offer to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Berkley Heights NJ. I was hired as a laboratory technician and began work on June 29, 1966.

    I was hired to assist a scientist with his research involving artificial neurons. Leon D. Harmon had invented and patented an electronic circuit that modeled the characteristics of a biological neuron. My job was to assemble small networks of the artificial neurons and record patterns in their behavior. I did this and documented my work in technical memoranda as was required. During the three years that I worked for Leon, I worked on a number of other projects ranging from voice and face recognition to visual illusions and abstract art. Several anecdotes about my work experience during these years are an attempt to capture the breadth, depth, and diversity of the wonderful work environment at Bell Laboratories during these years.

    In 1969, I began working for A.G. Fraser who went by the nick name of Sandy. His research involved networking theory and he wanted to build a network of computers to demonstrate his theories. The experimental networks that were  developed in industry and academia in the early 1970's lead the way to the implementation of the modern Internet. Sandy and I designed and built two experimental networks during the 15 years that we worked together. The first called the Spider Network, connected 12 computers together. It lead to the invention of virtual switched circuits for which Sandy received a patent. The second network was called Datakit. It demonstrated the virtual switching technique and eventually connected hundreds of computers at Bell Labs. Datakit pioneered the use of virtual switching that is currently used in the backbone structure of the Internet.

    In 1984 an epoch event occurred in the communications industry. The Telephone Company Divestiture had worldwide impact and altered the course of many careers including my own. The Divestiture forced the separation of the nations telephone companies from AT&T who owned them and Bell Labs. Since AT&T kept Bell Labs as part of the deal, a new company was formed to conduct research for the divested phone companies. This new company was Bell Communications Research or Bellcore for short.

    By that time I was an Associate Member of Technical Staff and had advanced as far as I could at Bell Labs. The next level up was reserved for scientists with a PHD in their field. I held only a two year degree and it was only by good fortune that I had come as far as I had. Datakit was moving from research into production and Sandy had received a big promotion to Director of Research. He was on his way to fame and no longer required my assistance to get there.

    I surveyed the landscape and saw two significant opportunities. The first was to follow the Datakit project into production. I had brought Datakit from concept to production and was regarded as its design Guru. The other option was to move from Bell Labs to Bellcore and start anew. This offer was spiced up by a promotion to a full member of technical staff. Bellcore was a new company and did not restrict this transition as Bell Labs did. I would have my own office and laboratory and a free hand to start a new research project. The choice was between a secure position with no chance of advancement or a promotion with no guarantees and "enough rope to hang myself". I chose to take my chances at Bellcore.

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